When friends call you with computer trouble, you try to help. But no matter how much you know about PCs, correcting a problem can be a challenge when you're talking to someone who doesn't know a taskbar from a USB port. So we've put together the definitive guide to providing IT support for those closest to you. We'll show you the tweaks, the tricks and the freebies that will make you the most popular geek in town.

First, we'll tell you how to help local loved ones - those who live close enough for you to sit down at their PCs. Then we'll offer advice for long-distance support over the phone and via the internet.

1. Be a tech-support hero

First, you don't know everything. If you can't figure out the problem, say so. It's better not to help than to make things worse.

Second, you have a life. You're not obliged to drop everything you're doing to help figure out why Auntie Vivian's antivirus conflicts with Final Catastrophe IV: Attack of the Dentists. Let people know when it's not a good time.

When you sit down at someone's computer, start by checking the basics. Are the security programs up to date? Check msconfig to find out what programs are loading with every boot.

If there's a working internet connection, run a free, online malware scanner, such as this one at Kaspersky Lab and this one - Trend Micro HouseCall.

Put shortcuts to your favourite scanners on a flash drive so you can take them to different computers.

  1. Be a tech-support hero
  2. The right tools for the right job
  3. IT support from far away
  4. Vista: heal thyself
  5. Help your friends to help themselves

When friends call you with computer trouble, you try to help. But no matter how much you know about PCs, correcting a problem can be a challenge when you're talking to someone who doesn't know a taskbar from a USB port. So we've put together the definitive guide to providing IT support for those closest to you. We'll show you the tweaks, the tricks and the freebies that will make you the most popular geek in town.

2. The right tools for the right job

And while you're at it, put some portable diagnostic and repair programs on the flash drive, as well. Portable programs don't have to be installed on a computer; you run them from the flash drive and they work just fine.

Here are three free, portable programs that belong on every local hero's flash drive:

EasyCleaner

ToniArts' repair tool searches your Registry for unnecessary entries and gives you the option of deleting them. You can instruct it to skip entries containing a specific word, and you can have it print or save its search results.

EasyCleaner has other tricks, as well, including an Add/Remove programs tool (it's no better than Windows' built-in add/remove utility, however), tools for finding duplicate and unnecessary files, a space usage tool that tells you where your hard-drive space is going, and a Startup inspector that could take the place of msconfig. It has an undo command, too. Should you regret a particular Registry change, you can undo all or just one of them.

Price: Free

Download EasyCleaner

PC Wizard

CPUID's freebie provides a full list of everything on your friend's PC. It will identify the BIOS make and number, the type of RAM, and CPU and motherboard temperature. PC Wizard can also report on Windows' configuration, system files and resources. And it benchmarks the PC's performance.

Price: Free

Download PC Wizard

Undelete Plus

Just in case your beneficiary accidentally deleted a file and then emptied the Recycle Bin, it's a good idea to have this little program on your flash drive. It scans the hard drive, groups deleted files by type, and estimates you the likelihood of recovering the lost items.

Then it tries - and often succeeds - to recover the ones you select. Undelete Plus is free, but if you like it, be nice and send in the requested £5 donation.

Price: Free

Download Undelete Plus

  1. Be a tech-support hero
  2. The right tools for the right job
  3. IT support from far away
  4. Vista: heal thyself
  5. Help your friends to help themselves

When friends call you with computer trouble, you try to help. But no matter how much you know about PCs, correcting a problem can be a challenge when you're talking to someone who doesn't know a taskbar from a USB port. So we've put together the definitive guide to providing IT support for those closest to you. We'll show you the tweaks, the tricks and the freebies that will make you the most popular geek in town.

3. IT support from far away

Tech support gets harder when the unhealthy PC is too far away for hands-on work. Your trusty flash drive won't help you help your brother in Fortwilliam - unless, of course, you live in Fortwilliam (or maybe Inverness, at a push).

The basic rules mentioned on the first page of this article apply with even more force at a distance. You know less when you aren't making a house call, and people who communicate with you primarily by phone think nothing of calling with a question and expecting you to drop everything.

If they do so, and if the question is difficult, set up a telephone appointment for a later time. And make it a time when both of you are sitting at computers - preferably computers loaded with the same OS.

Since you can't see the error message on their screen from where you're sitting, teach them to make screen shots. In XP and Vista, have them proceed as follows: Press the Print Screen key, select Start**All Programs**Accessories**Paint, press Ctrl-V. Then get them to save the file and email it to you.

If a screenshot isn't sufficient, have your distant supplicant create and send you a report or two. Here are some useful report tools:

PC Wizard

You met this program earlier as an essential tool for your forays into local heroism. Although it can't create a single, overall report for long-range use, it can create individual ones for the various general categories it covers (Hardware, Configuration, and so on).

Have your friend or relative download and run the program (remember, it doesn't have to be installed), selecting a category in the left pane and then selecting File**Save as.

Then direct the helpee through the 'Save as' dialog box to create the report you want emailed you. The easiest way to do proceed is to open PC Wizard on your own PC so you can guide the lost soul step by step.

HijackThis

Now owned by Trend Micro, this beloved freebie (beloved by the geek set, anyway) scans a PC for dubious settings that may (or may not) indicate the presence of malware and then creates a log file that your remote correspondent can send to you.

This log file has a pretty high techiness quotient. Fortunately, just as you are willing to help your friends, others are prepared to help you. Contributors to volunteer forums will read your HijackThis reports and offer suggestions.

Price: Free

Download HijackThis

  1. Be a tech-support hero
  2. The right tools for the right job
  3. IT support from far away
  4. Vista: heal thyself
  5. Help your friends to help themselves

When friends call you with computer trouble, you try to help. But no matter how much you know about PCs, correcting a problem can be a challenge when you're talking to someone who doesn't know a taskbar from a USB port. So we've put together the definitive guide to providing IT support for those closest to you. We'll show you the tweaks, the tricks and the freebies that will make you the most popular geek in town.

4. Vista: heal thyself

If your friend or relative is running Windows Vista, he or she will need lots of support. Luckily, Vista offers its own reporting tool.

Have the poor devil begin by clicking Start, typing Performance Information and Tools, and pressing Enter. In the resulting window, the person should click Advanced Tools (in the left pane) and then Generate a system health report (at the bottom of the window). After the report is generated, instruct your friend/relative to select File**Save as and send the resulting file to you.

What about remote software?

At this point, you probably expect us to recommend a remote control program. After all, what could be better than controlling your friend's computer over the internet?

Unfortunately, we have yet to find such a program that is easy enough for a novice to install and set up - even with you giving instructions over the phone.

  1. Be a tech-support hero
  2. The right tools for the right job
  3. IT support from far away
  4. Vista: heal thyself
  5. Help your friends to help themselves

When friends call you with computer trouble, you try to help. But no matter how much you know about PCs, correcting a problem can be a challenge when you're talking to someone who doesn't know a taskbar from a USB port. So we've put together the definitive guide to providing IT support for those closest to you. We'll show you the tweaks, the tricks and the freebies that will make you the most popular geek in town.

5. Help your friends to help themselves

Fix your friends' PC, and they can use it for a day. Teach them to fix their own PC, and you get your life back.

If someone keeps calling you, insist that they at least ask for help first in the PC Advisor Helproom Forum (it is, after all, the largest IT forum in Europe. Then get them to visit the following help sections on PC Advisor:

And for the holidays, buy your trouble-prone friends and relatives USB hard drives with bundled backup software.

They may look at the unwrapped gift the way you looked at a present of socks when you were a kid, but someday they'll thank you.

  1. Be a tech-support hero
  2. The right tools for the right job
  3. IT support from far away
  4. Vista: heal thyself
  5. Help your friends to help themselves